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3 Smart Cities in Action

Several municipalities are forming public-private partnerships to launch smart city initiatives.

There’s been much discussion lately about the potential of “smart cities” and connecting data to help make communities more efficient, productive, sustainable and secure. But actual examples of smart city projects with documented results are sometimes difficult to find, at least in the U.S. For many cities, it’s a matter of cost. 

“In general, the U.S. is behind many EU countries when it comes to implementing smart city solutions that can reduce energy costs and increase operational efficiencies, among other things,” said Toni Oubari, senior consultant for Verizon's Internet of Things Smart Cities initiative. “For many cities, cost prevents them from investing in the technology they need to implement these initiatives.”

EU countries, on the other hand, have been quick to tap public-private partnerships to get the technology they need. And some U.S. cities are beginning to take a similar approach.

Take Lansing, Mich., which recently transformed its streets with a smart lighting project that included an LED retrofit. Verizon worked with its Innovation Program partner Illuminating Concepts to provide connectivity to the cloud and the capabilities for environmental analysis, public announcements, emergency calls and digital signage, as well as a host of other services. As a result, Lansing has reduced its energy and maintenance costs by 70 percent and created a safer, more pedestrian-friendly environment.

Meanwhile, Charleston, S.C., has worked to improve public safety. Personnel, systems and applications across diverse organizations are now connected to help improve situational awareness. Officers in Charleston can quickly communicate and retrieve data, images and forms to help them make accurate decisions. They can also receive more precise direction, and various departments can work together more efficiently to address the needs of their neighboring jurisdictions.

Finally, Charlotte, N.C., implemented a unique public-private partnership between Verizon, Duke Energy, and the city's business and civic leaders called Envision Charlotte. The partnership’s first initiative connected more than 60 buildings in the commercial center to kiosks that display how much energy is being consumed. 

“We needed a sustainability initiative for uptown because we wanted to reduce energy by 20 percent,” said Amy Aussieker, executive director for Envision Charlotte. “The idea was to focus first on commercial buildings in uptown that were 10,000 square feet or larger. There were 64 buildings that fit that criteria in 2011 when we launched the project.”

Aussieker said they went to all of the building owners and persuaded 61 of the 64 to sign a pledge to reduce energy. They then placed shadow meters in the basements of each building, allowing them to gather real-time energy data, beam it to the cloud, aggregate it and then beam it back down to kiosks located in the buildings. The kiosks allow the public to track energy use right along with city officials. Envision Charlotte also enlisted the community in its conservation efforts by implementing a behavioral program that teaches workers simple ways they can reduce energy use in their respective buildings. 

About year ago, Envision Charlotte announced the first wave of results from the program. Overall the city reduced its power usage by 8.4 percent and saved more than $10 million. As a result, Envision Charlotte was just awarded a U.S. Department of Energy grant that will allow it to expand the program to 200 buildings.

Simultaneously the city is working to implement similar programs for both water and waste.

“The water program is similar to the energy program,” said Aussieker. “We are placing shadow meters on 22 downtown buildings and sending it to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to help set a baseline. From there we’ll implement a reduction program.”

On the waste side, the city partnered with Enevo to place sensors in waste receptacles. It will then gather data and send it to UNC Charlotte for evaluation. 

“Soon we’ll have three data streams, and we can start to look at the nexus of water, energy and waste,” said Aussieker. “Already it’s been a really interesting transformation of our city. I call it a public-private-plus partnership, because its city, county, private entities, utilities and the university system all working together. Everyone is completely aligned behind the smart city concept and the benefits it’s bringing to the city.”

Aussieker said they expect the next set of results from the energy project soon and speculates they will see even better results than the first time. She added that the city has received calls from all over the world asking for more details on their projects.

“There’s been great marketing and great talk about smart cities, but not a lot of actual test cases and proofs of concept, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” she said. “I think that’s why we’ve gotten so much attention — we have projects that are actually showing value.”

Justine Brown is an award-winning veteran journalist who specializes in technology and education. Email her at